Miami Dolphins  


Dolphins owner Ross has chance to learn from past mistakes

  • By Jeff Darlington
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Hans Deryk/Associated Press
The Dolphins are 18-27 since Stephen Ross bought controlling stake in the franchise in February 2009.

With only the sound of a jet engine squealing through the cool South Florida air on Jan. 7, 2011, I stood outside the gates of a private runway in Fort Lauderdale at 2 a.m., waiting for an opportunity to speak to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross about a meeting he'd just held on the other side of the country.

This notion that reporters (I wasn't alone) would track his jet -- this notion that so many others across the country would also care about his decision to meet face-to-face with Jim Harbaugh in California about a head coaching vacancy that had yet to exist -- not only perplexed Ross, but also surprised him.

"I never thought it would be national news," Ross said a day later, while also announcing during a roundtable discussion that Tony Sparano would remain the coach despite Ross' meeting with Harbaugh.

At least from a symbolic standpoint, that flight will forever serve as the beginning of the end for Sparano's tenure in Miami. But just because Sparano is now gone, Ross still has work to do before he can rid himself of the resonating scent from that day. He now has the opportunity to do just that.

Ross, who surely must now understand the magnitude and newsworthiness of his decisions, has the chance to show his fan base and any prospective top-tier coaching candidates that he has become an owner far more understanding of his place as a caretaker for one of 32 prized organizations.

If the Dolphins' owner is going to lure a big-time coach like Bill Cowher to South Florida, sources close to Cowher have made it clear it would take some enormous convincing. Cowher, if he ever decides to leave his television job for a return to the sideline, wants to feel comfortable about the overall organizational stability of any potential landing place. And the former Steelers coach likely isn't alone in those desires.

Can Ross convince a candidate of such? Can he assure a prospective coach that he won't burn him the way he did Sparano in January if things get hot? There's more, too.

Among league circles, it is widely known that Miami's football operations often didn't see eye-to-eye with the business side. Can Ross convince the right candidates that, if he becomes the coach, he won't have to deal with promotions that encourage alumni of the opposing team's quarterback to attend a Dolphins home game (i.e. Gator Day)?

These are questions that Ross will need to answer. They are questions, despite public perception that would understandably suggest otherwise, that he has privately been working to conquer on his own. Multiple team sources working in various capacities say Ross has taken a proactive approach in recent months to get to the bottom of Miami's organizational woes.

His actions, at the very least, could help show someone like Cowher that Ross is learning.

Mike Dee was named CEO of the Dolphins and SunLife Stadium in May 2009.
Mike Dee was named CEO of the Dolphins and SunLife Stadium in May 2009. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)

In the wake of lagging ticket sales and increased spending, Ross has delegated one of his most trusted executives from Equinox Fitness -- a company also chaired by Ross -- to make a wide-sweeping assessment of the Dolphins' business operations. Harvey Spevak, the fitness company's chief executive who attended Ross' Michigan alma mater, has been charged with the task, sources said.

Spevak hired two consultants, who in recent months began a review of business operations with complete authority to interview every employee. Football people, like Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland, do not fall under this umbrella. However, current Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, who was hired by Ross in 2009, most certainly does.

This evaluation is not being done with the intention of luring Cowher or any football person specifically, sources said, but it is instead designed to assure Ross that he has the right people in critical roles to maximize the performance of the business side of the organization.

"The current theme within the offices at the stadium is, 'Be honest,'" one of several team sources said. "Everyone has been asked to evaluate everyone. If any underlings have something critical to say about the CEO -- or any other executive, for that matter -- they have absolutely been encouraged to do it."

Ross, a successful business man who made his billions in real estate, is attempting to take an approach that suits his expertise. Equinox Fitness Clubs, which Spevak has successfully operated, is a thriving subsidiary of Ross' real estate company that runs 50 upscale gyms in several major cities. The Dolphins' business and marketing arms, on the other hand, have not showed sufficient returns on their spending.

Bill Cowher has been off the sidelines since leaving the Steelers in January of 2007.
Bill Cowher has been off the sidelines since leaving the Steelers in January of 2007. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

So yes, Ross has made a conscious effort -- at least privately -- to get the organization back on track in a variety of different ways. On Monday, in a much more public way, he made a move to do so on the football side by firing Sparano. But make no mistake: All of this is connected. And all of it, if Ross can appropriately formulate his findings into proof that he's starting to understand this ownership stuff, could go a long way toward the hiring of Ross' next head coach.

Cowher has already been watching the Dolphins' situation closely, a source close to the coach said. A top 15 pick in next year's draft might help, of course. But so, too, will Ross' salesmanship of the state of the organization. There is no question he has a huge opportunity in the coming weeks to make good on a year of pitfalls. That time starts now.

As Ross prepares to fire up his jet to resume the interview process, he'll have 11 months of lessons since the last time he trekked across the country to converse with a coaching candidate. Is Miami's owner better prepared for all it entails this time around? Is he ready for the attention? For the questions from the candidates? For the pressure from the fans?

Whoever comes back with him, Ross can most certainly be ready for one thing: We'll all be waiting for the jet to arrive.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.



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